Fishing for Flathead Catfish
Small waters, Big Opportunities
I've been called an oddball many times in my life. Freshwater fishing generally conjures the image of a smiling angler holding up a trophy two pound crappie or 30 inch walleye. Not for me. Granted these are great game fish and I regularly pursue them, but they are not what truly gets my heart pumping. When I say big, I mean big. Not like a 10 pound largemouth bass kind of big, or even a 30 pound muskie. I'm talking fish that weigh 40, 50, or even 100 pounds. I'm talking about the flathead catfish.
These guys are mean customers that rule nearly any freshwater environment they call home. They can snap fishing poles like twigs, break fingers, and capsize small boats. They are not a fish for everyone. Anyone who wants to catch something that will push you not just mentally, but physically, needs to take the time to land one of these whiskered leviathons.
Where do you find 'em
Flatheads are a unique fish compared to most of the fish world. In the small stream environments that I regularly frequent, these fish rule the roost. They pick the biggest, baddest, deepest, most cover-laden bends in the river. If you find the deepest hole with the most logs, sticks, boulders, and trees in a 10-20 mile stretch of river, odds are it will be home to the biggest catfish in the whole stretch.
To find these spots, I enjoy a day of fishing for channel catfish in my kayak or boat. While I'm doing this, I'm comparing each hole I stop at to fish to decide which one I will target flatheads in at night. I have not found a better, or more enjoyable way to find the best spots a flathead catfish might call home. Once I have identified the deepest hole with the most cover, I make mental notes of where to come back later.
WHEN TO CATCH 'EM
The old mantra of flathead fishing was "night time is the right time" to catch them. In recent times many people have had success catching them during the day. The idea is to put either a lively baitfish or a fresh chunk of cutbait right in front of their noses. Even with that being said, I have personally caught all of my largest flatheads at night.
Night fishing, whether is is from a kayak, shore, or boat brings a whole new aura to the fishing experience. Senses are heightened, allowing you to pick up every single sound floating through the dark. You could be in the Amazon rainforest, you could be in the upper Midwest of North America, and your mind starts to wonder what is out there. Giant flathead catfish are what is out there.
Grab a buddy, a jacket in case it gets cool, your fishing gear, and you have all the ingredients for memories you will never forget. While you're at it, bring a head lamp and some extra batteries. Trust me on that last part.
BAIT AND TACKLE
Locations and time are the most important factors. After that, you need to have good bait. Flatheads aren't your everyday, run-of-the-mill catfish that the majority of our population imagines. They generally ignore smelly, rotten stink baits or grocery store baits like chicken liver and shrimp. You can never say never in a world where animals are fighting for survival, but the odds of hooking one of these monstrosities if you bait up with a more tempting morsel, such a big, lively baitfish or fresh cutbait.
The type of bait isn't as important as how much commotion it makes as it struggles underwater. This is what draws that mean mother flathead in to seal the deal. With that being said, make sure you follow local regulations on what is legal for bait. Beyond that, if it is alive, it will probably catch a flathead if they are around and feeding. Bluegills, sunfish, bullheads, carp, creek chubs, shiners, and suckers all make wonderful baits when kept healthy. When cut into large chunks, they also make great cutbait. A good rule of thumb is if the bait is lively, a flathead will probably eat it.
Once you have the bait part down, you have to make sure you have tackle that will handle a fish that pound-for-pound may be stronger than you. One top of that, the largest fish generally live in some of the nastiest river tangles in the whole river. So, you not only have to land a big fish, but you need to pull it out by nose in front of that big log jam you should be fishing by. It isn't always about tiring the fish out. It's more comparable to playing tug-of-war with a rottweiler that wants back in their dog house. You need some serious fishing tackle.
Luckily, many manufacturers make rods and reels that will handle these monsters. Look for a sturdy reel that will hold around 300 yards or more of 20 pound line. However, this doesn't mean you should use 20 pound line. Load that thing up with 40-60 pound monofilament or 80-100 pound braid and crank that reel's drag down! You got to give them the business, and this is often times the only way it is going to happen. You can land big fish on lighter gear, but heart break is only a matter of time. Put that reel on a medium-heavy to heavy power rod and you are ready for a battle you won't forget.
AND THE MOST IMPORTANT PART
Time on the water is everything. After that, patience is important as well. There are not that many big flatheads, especially compared to most other gamefish. Putting in regular and frequent time on the water is the only way to consistently catch these fish.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other things to learn about these fish. However, when things look down, and you haven't caught a flathead in weeks, these basic concepts will keep you on the right path to success. Welcome to the addiction of fishing for monster flathead catfish.